Archive for Opioid

America’s ‘Other’ Health Emergency Needs Attention Too

America’s ‘Other’ Health Emergency Needs Attention Too

Drug overdose deaths could surpass 100,000 in the U.S. for the first time ever

By John Meigs, Jr., MD

For the past 12 months, the nation’s medical community correctly and understandably focused nearly all its attention on the COVID-19 pandemic.  Now with millions being vaccinated, we are hopefully about to turn the corner and can begin returning our focus to a different health crisis that never went away and actually got worse during COVID.

That crisis is the drug overdose crisis, the epidemic inside the pandemic.

Research shows that more than 13 percent of American adults started or increased substance use to cope with stress related to COVID-19.  Unfortunately, many of the socially isolating steps that were necessary to combat COVID-19 are the same conditions where substance abuse flourishes.  

In Alabama, Jefferson County alone saw drug overdose deaths increase by 25 percent in 2020 to their highest level ever.  This mirrors national data, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reporting the highest number of fatal overdoses ever recorded in the U.S. in a single year in the 12-month period ending in May 2020.  It’s likely the U.S. will surpass 100,000 drug overdose deaths this year for the first time ever.

Fortunately, Alabama is working with the CDC and other states to take statistics like these and turn them into action that ultimately reduces overdose deaths.

Through the Overdose Data to Action program, Alabama is improving its collection of comprehensive and timely information on non-fatal and fatal overdoses.  This helps the state to monitor and understand emerging trends, then drive effective prevention and response solutions tailored to the needs of individuals and communities.

For example, before becoming part of the Overdose Data to Action initiative, Jefferson County received data on overdoses only once a year.  Now it has access to that important information within 24 hours.  With that data in hand, the Jefferson County Department of Health identifies overdose hotspots and mobilizes rapid response teams with physicians, addiction specialists and peer counselors to target recovery and prevention resources to those neighborhoods being hit hardest by drug overdoses.  Plans to replicate this model for other Alabama counties are being developed.

Timely, evidence-based information and collaboration are essential for success in preventing overdose deaths.  First responders, mental health providers, community organizations, public health leaders, medical personnel and others all bring resources and expertise to this effort.

Physicians in Alabama and across America are certainly part of this effort.  We’ve fought to pass legislation to reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion.  Thousands have accessed continuing medical education and other intensive courses on substance use disorders.  In fact, the Medical Association of the State of Alabama was one of the first in the nation to offer an opioid prescribing education course.  Since 2009, we have reached more than 5,000 prescribers with information on the safe prescribing of opioids.  Since 2018, the number of times health care professionals in Alabama have accessed the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has increased by more than 20 percent, and Alabama physicians have reduced their prescriptions of opioids by more than 34 percent since 2014.  

All these collaborative efforts and more are needed as our nation’s drug overdose crisis evolves into an even more complicated and dangerous epidemic, due primarily to the pervasiveness of fentanyl.

Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have steadily declined, but overdose deaths related to illicitly manufactured fentanyl and related fentanyl analogs increased nationwide by more than 500 percent between 2015 and 2019, according to the CDC.

Fentanyl, a painkiller that is 100 times more powerful than morphine, is the number one cause of overdose deaths in the United States today.  So powerful and lethal is fentanyl that if you were to swallow, inhale or absorb just two milligrams of it through your skin, you would die.  To appreciate just how small two milligrams is, consider that the packet of sweetener you’ll find on most restaurant tables is about 1,000 milligrams.

When police in Brookwood recently seized two pounds of fentanyl during a traffic stop, the former U.S. attorney who said it was enough to kill nearly every resident of Jefferson County was not exaggerating.

For years, fentanyl has been mixed with illegal drugs like heroin.  Today, however, we are seeing more instances where fentanyl is pressed into counterfeit pills to resemble prescription opioids.  Such was the case in Muscle Shoals last year where police found pills that were being sold by a drug dealer as Oxycodone but were actually pure fentanyl.  This takes the drug overdose crisis to a new and more dangerous level.  Everyone who obtains any drug from an illicit source should know they are at tremendous risk of a fatal fentanyl overdose. 

With the number of new COVID cases and deaths finally heading in the right direction, we must renew our attention and focus on America’s “other” health emergency, the overdose epidemic.  Significant efforts by health professionals, advocates, law enforcement and government are being made to address this crisis.  With even more attention, collaboration and resources, countless lives can be saved.


Dr. Meigs has practiced family medicine in Bibb County for more than 30 years and serves as President of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.

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Report: 34 Percent Decline in Opioid Prescribing since 2014

Report: 34 Percent Decline in Opioid Prescribing since 2014


CONTACT: Mark Jackson, Executive Director (334) 954-2500

CONTACT: Mallory Camerio, Director of Communications (334) 954-2580

Report: 34 Percent Decline in Opioid Prescribing since 2014

According to a new report released by the American Medical Association, Alabama physicians have reduced opioid prescribing by 34.4% since 2014, increased the use of state prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) and decreased the total morphine milligram equivalents by 46.6% since 2014. Our physicians also have continued to educate themselves on safe prescribing, pain management and recognizing signs of addiction. 

“Everyone can agree there is no quick fix to the country’s opioid epidemic. In Alabama, our physicians took a leadership role many years ago by taking a hard look at where we were and where we needed to be,” said Mark Jackson, executive director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. “As an association, we created the first educational program to train our physicians, and we passed legislation to reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion. Even though Alabama has come a long way in the fight against opioids, we have a long way yet to go.”

Key points from the 2020 report:

  • Opioid prescribing decreases for the sixth year in a row. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of opioid prescriptions decreased by more than 90 million — a 37.1 percent decrease nationally.
  • Total morphine milligram equivalents has decreased by 46.6% since 2014 in Alabama.
  • Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) registrations and use continue to increase. In 2019, health care professionals in Alabama accessed state PDMPs more than 4 million times – a 20 percent increase from 2018. More than 22,500 physicians and other health care professionals are registered to use state PDMPs.
  • The Medical Association was one of the first states to offer an opioid prescribing education course in the country in 2009. The main course is offered three times each year and has reached more than 5,000 prescribers to date.
  • Access to naloxone increasing. More than 1 million naloxone prescriptions were dispensed in 2019—nearly double the amount in 2018, and a 649 percent increase from 2017. In 2016 the Medical Association helped pass legislation in Alabama authorizing the State Health Officer to sign a standing order to allow Alabama’s pharmacists to dispense naloxone to people in a position to assist others at risk of an overdose as well as to an individual at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose.


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Alabama Hospitals File Suit Against Opioid Manufacturers, Distributors

Alabama Hospitals File Suit Against Opioid Manufacturers, Distributors

Hospitals experience significant financial and operational harm as opioid crisis continues

EVERGREEN, Ala., Sept. 10, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — After two decades of providing frontline care in response to the opioid crisis, a group of 21 Alabama hospitals have filed a civil lawsuit in Conecuh County Circuit Court against the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of opioid-based drugs. As the opioid crisis has reached epidemic levels, Alabama hospitals have made substantial investments in people, processes and facilities to properly care for patients who have multiple health problems associated with treating the complications of opioid addiction.

The complaint alleges defendants engaged in a decades-long practice of making false assurances about the addiction risks associated with opioid products and used other deceptive marketing tactics to persuade physicians and health care providers to broaden prescribing patterns. The result has been widespread addiction, suffering, and loss of life in communities across Alabama and the nation, with hospitals bearing the financial burden of care and treatment for the victims.

In 2017, 107.2 opioid prescriptions were written for every 100 people in Alabama, the highest prescribing rate in the country and nearly twice as high as the national average of 58.7 per person. There were 167 deaths involving prescription opioids in Alabama in 2017, an increase from 124 in 2016.

“The deceptive marketing efforts of the defendants substantially contributed to an explosion in the use of opioids across the country – and the aftereffects are felt in hospitals every single day,” said Robert King, attorney with The King Law Firm, representing the hospitals. “Hospitals have provided heroic levels of care to opioid-addicted patients and saved countless lives. But the financial, operational and emotional expense for hospitals is staggering. The defendants are at the root of this crisis.”

Industry analysts estimate the country’s healthcare system incurred more than $215.7 billion in costs related to the opioid crisis from 2001 to 2017. The costs were largely attributable to overdose-related emergency department visits.

The hospitals’ complaint alleges negligence, fraud and civil conspiracy by the defendants, which include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Laboratories and more than 40 other companies and individuals involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of prescription opioids.

“With the appropriate financial resources, no party is better positioned to lead us out of this public health crisis than hospitals,” said Stephen Farmer, attorney with Farmer Cline & Campbell PLLC.

“Hospitals have experienced significant, measurable damages and must be active participants in any opioid settlement discussions,” adds Farmer, who serves as additional counsel for the plaintiffs.

Last month, former Ohio Governor John Kasich and West Virginia University President Dr. Gordon Gee recognized hospitals’ unique position to positively impact the opioid crisis by announcing the formation of Citizens for Effective Opioid Treatment at The 501(c)(4) organization is working to educate business and community leaders and the public about the negative impact the crisis is having on the nation’s health care infrastructure while advancing evidence-based solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Also last month, the American Hospital Association urged a judge hearing one of the opioid cases “to ensure that needed funds are directed to the hospitals and health systems that are on the forefront of caring for the victims of this epidemic. With additional resources, hospitals can broaden access to post-overdose treatment in emergency departments, increase training of physicians to treat substance use disorders, cover the costs of lengthy stays and follow-up care for infants with neonatal abstinence disorder, and invest in electronic health information systems to improve coordinated care and prevent overprescribing.”

The Alabama hospitals join hundreds of other hospitals across the country that have filed similar suits against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The Alabama hospitals who filed suit this month include:

  • DCH Health Care facilities in Tuscaloosa, Northport and Fayette
  • Baptist Health medical centers in Montgomery and Prattville
  • Medical West in Bessemer
  • Evergreen Medical Center in Evergreen
  • Jackson Medical Center in Jackson
  • Flowers Hospital in Dothan
  • Medical Center Enterprise in Enterprise
  • Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham
  • Gadsden Regional Medical Center in Gadsden
  • South Baldwin Regional Hospital in Foley
  • Grove Hill Memorial Hospital in Grove Hill
  • Princeton Baptist in Birmingham
  • Walker Baptist Medical Center in Jasper
  • Shelby Baptist Medical Center in Alabaster
  • Citizens Baptist Medical Center in Talladega
  • Brookwood Baptist in Birmingham

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Opioid Use Decreased in Medicare Part D While MAT Increased

Opioid Use Decreased in Medicare Part D While MAT Increased

The nation has been grappling with an opioid crisis for years. In 2017 alone, there were 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States. It continues to be a public health emergency. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of the Inspector General has been tracking opioid use in Medicare during this crisis, particularly since 2016.

In a statement, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said: “Fighting the opioid epidemic has been a top priority for the Trump administration. We are encouraged by the OIG’s conclusion which finds significant progress has been made in our efforts to decrease opioid misuse while simultaneously increasing medication-assisted treatment in the Medicare Part D program.”

OIG has identified beneficiaries at serious risk of misuse or overdose and has identified prescribers with questionable prescribing for these beneficiaries. These types of analyses are crucial to understanding and addressing the national opioid crisis. Building on past OIG work, this data brief details opioid use in Medicare Part D in 2018 and trends in drugs used to treat opioid use disorder.

We based this data brief on an analysis of Part D prescription drug event records for opioids received in 2018. We determined the beneficiaries’ morphine equivalent dose, which is a measure that converts all of the various opioids and strengths into one standard value.


Alabama had the highest proportion of beneficiaries receiving opioids through Medicare Part D, while Hawaii had the lowest proportion.

  • Nearly 3 in 10 Medicare Part D beneficiaries received opioids in 2018, a significant decrease from the previous 2 years.
  • At the same time, the number of beneficiaries receiving drugs for medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder has steadily increased and reached 174,000 in 2018.
  • In addition, the number of beneficiaries receiving prescriptions through Part D for naloxone-a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose-more than doubled from 2017 to 2018.
  • About 354,000 beneficiaries received high amounts of opioids in 2018, with about 49,000 of them at serious risk of opioid misuse or overdose; this was fewer than in the previous 2 years.
  • About 200 prescribers had questionable opioid prescribing for beneficiaries at serious risk.


Progress has been made in decreasing opioid use in Part D, increasing the use of drugs for medication-assisted treatment, and increasing the availability of naloxone. It is imperative for the Department of Health and Human Services-including CMS and OIG-to continue to implement effective strategies and develop new ones to address this epidemic.

Read the complete Data Brief

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STUDY: Risk of Suicide Attempt by Children Doubles if Parent Uses Opioids

STUDY: Risk of Suicide Attempt by Children Doubles if Parent Uses Opioids

The suicide rate among young people in the U.S. has risen dramatically in the past 15 years. Over the same time period, opioid use and abuse in adults also has increased considerably. Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh reported on a connection between these two epidemics in a study published this week in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Until now, there has been little focus on the association between the increase in opioid use among adults and the risk of suicidal behavior by their children,” said Robert D. Gibbons, PhD, the Blum-Riese Professor of Biostatistics and director of the Center for Health Statistics at UChicago and senior author of the paper. “We theorized such a link was plausible because parental substance abuse is a known risk factor for suicide attempts by their children. In addition, depression and suicide attempts by parents — which are known to be related to suicidal behavior in their offspring — are more common among adults who abuse opioids.”

The researchers analyzed data from more than 240,000 parents, ages 30 to 50, between 2010 and 2016. Half of the group had filled opioid prescriptions for at least 365 days. The other half had no history of using the drug during that time. The two groups were matched on a number of factors related to suicide attempts and opioid use. Rates of suicide attempts were studied in over 330,000 children, ages 10 to 19, from these two groups of parents over the same six-year period.

Of the children whose parents used opioids, 678 (0.37%) attempted suicide. Of the sons and daughters of parents who did not use opioids, 212 (0.14%) made a suicide attempt. The researchers found that opioid use by a parent is associated with a doubling of the risk of suicide attempts by their children. The results were statistically significant even when adjusted for child age and sex, depression or substance use disorder in child or parent, and history of a suicide attempt in a parent.

“These findings demonstrate that opioid use by a parent or parents doubles the risk for suicidal behavior by their children,” said David A. Brent, MD, psychiatrist and chair of suicide studies at the University of Pittsburgh, also an author on the paper. “The epidemics of adult opiate abuse and child suicidal behavior appear to be linked, and the disturbing upward trends in mortality due to opiates and due to child suicide may have common roots.”

Gibbons and Brent call for improved diagnosis and treatment of parents who use opioids as well as mental health screening and referral to care for their children. “These actions could help reverse the upward trend in deaths due to the twin epidemics of suicide and opioid overdose,” Gibbons said.

The study, “Association Between Parental Medical Claims for Opioid Prescriptions and Risk of Suicide Attempt by Their Children,” was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Kwan Hur, PhD, in the Center for Health Statistics at the University of Chicago, was also an author of the study.

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CDC Clarifies Opioid Prescribing Guidelines

CDC Clarifies Opioid Prescribing Guidelines

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain in 2016, physicians have relied on the document for recommendations when prescribing pain medication to their patients. However, because the CDC did not specifically clarify the guidelines in the original release, many physicians’ groups have been concerned the guidelines were misapplied to the detriment of pain patients.

The CDC issued the guideline in March 2016 in an attempt to curb widespread opioid abuse, which claimed more than 20,000 U.S. lives in the previous year along. The guideline was intended for primary care clinicians and advised them to prescribe treatments other than opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care.

Three years later, more than 300 health care professionals wrote to the CDC urging clarification of the guideline and suggesting the possibility it is being misapplied by physicians and insurers, and even harming patients. The letter was signed by prominent medical experts, including three former White House “drug czars” who served in the Obama, Clinton and Nixon administrations. The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine’s Professor Stefan G. Kertesz, M.D., is also one of the signees of the letter.

“We urge the CDC to issue a bold clarification about the 2016 guideline — what it says and what it does not say, particularly on the matters of opioid taper and discontinuation,” the group wrote in the letter, which was also sent to leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions.

In a letter released publicly in April, the CDC said the guidelines were not intended to deny chronic pain patients relief from opioids and encouraged physicians to use their “clinical judgment” in prescribing the medications, which can be addictive. The letter also spoke specifically to the use of opioids in the treatment of cancer and sickle cell patients, making it clear the guideline was not meant to limit access to pain management for patients with these conditions.

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Drug Overdoses in Young People on the Rise

Drug Overdoses in Young People on the Rise

PISCATAWAY, NJ – In American adolescents and young adults, death rates from drug poisoning, particularly from opioids, have sharply increased over the last 10 years, according to new research in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

In 2006, the death rate from drug poisoning from any type of legal or illicit drug was 8.1 deaths for every 100,000 people in the population ages 15 to 24. This rose to 9.7 per 100,000 by 2015, mainly fueled by deaths from opioid use. In this age group, death rates from opioids — both prescription opioids and illicit opioids such as heroin — rose 4.8 percent on average annually from 2006 to 2015, with an even steeper incline of 15.4 percent a year between 2013 and 2015.

“The surge in drug poisoning deaths . . . among adolescents and young adults reflects the ease of access to pharmaceutical drugs, especially prescription opioids . . . and later transition to more potent opioids,” the authors write. Many young people are introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, such as Vicodin or OxyContin. They often misuse these drugs with motivations to relieve pain, relax, feel good, or get high.

“[W]hen people addicted to prescription opioids face difficulty accessing these drugs because of tighter controls, they often turn to increasingly available and cheaper heroin,” the authors continue. Those who switch from prescription drugs to heroin are at high risk for drug overdose because these individuals are “accustomed to titrated prescription drugs and do not realize that heroin varies in potency and can be cut or mixed with dangerous and potentially deadly substances,” such as fentanyl.

To conduct their study, researchers led by Bina Ali, Ph.D., of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland, analyzed mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics from 2006 through 2015. In addition to examining average annual rate changes in drug poisoning death rates for adolescents (ages 15-19) and young adults (ages 20-24), Ali and her colleagues estimated the costs to society associated with these deaths. This included the costs of medical interventions (emergency transport; treatment in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices; and autopsies), work loss (loss of earnings and household work that young people would have made over the remainder of an average life), and quality-of-life loss (the monetary value of intangible losses such as pain and suffering).

The investigators found that drug poisoning death rates in adolescents and young adults were higher for Whites (11.9 for every 100,000 people) and American Indian/Alaskan Natives (10.0) compared with Blacks (2.6), Asian/Pacific Islanders (2.3), and Hispanics (4.0). Over time, the rates significantly increased for Whites (1.7 percent per year from 2006 to 2015), Asian/Pacific Islanders (4.3 percent per year from 2006 to 2015), and Blacks (11.8 percent per year from 2009 to 2015).

Drug poisoning death rates in adolescents and young adults vary by state. For example, the rate in West Virginia was approximately 5 times higher than the rate in Nebraska (15.1 vs. 3.1 per 100,000). When looking at changes between 2006 and 2015, New York had the highest increase in drug poisoning death rate, with a 9.4 percent increase each year. This was followed by Ohio, Massachusetts and New Jersey (with 9.1 percent, 9.0 percent and 8.7 percent increases annually, respectively).

The estimated costs of drug poisoning deaths among young people in the United States were $27.1 million in medical costs, $8.5 billion in work loss costs, and $26.5 billion for quality-of-life loss in 2015.

“The burden of drug poisoning deaths among adolescents and young adults is substantial,” Ali and her colleagues conclude. “With the burden of drug poisoning deaths among adolescents and young adults estimated at $35.1 billion nationally, targeted state-specific efforts are warranted.”

Evidence-based and promising strategies exist, such as knowledge and skills development for physicians, young people, and their parents; expansion of prescription drug monitoring programs, prescription drug disposal methods, and naloxone distribution programs; and medication-assisted treatment that combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies. Interventions that are tailored for high-risk populations and directed at multiple levels (individuals, communities, and public health systems) are needed to reduce premature deaths from drug overdoses, according to Ali.


Ali, B., Fisher, D. A., Miller, T. R., Lawrence, B. A., Spicer, R. S., Swedler, D. I., & Allison, J. (2019). Trends in drug poisoning deaths among adolescents and young adults in the United States, 2006-2015. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 80, 201-210. doi:10.15288/jsad.2019.80.201

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs is published by the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. It is the oldest substance-related journal published in the United States.

To learn about education and training opportunities for addiction counselors and others at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, please visit

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STUDY: Opioid Epidemic May Have Cost U.S. Governments $37.8 Billion in Tax Revenue

STUDY: Opioid Epidemic May Have Cost U.S. Governments $37.8 Billion in Tax Revenue

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The opioid epidemic may have cost U.S. state and federal governments up to $37.8 billion in lost tax revenue due to opioid-related employment loss, according to Penn State researchers. Additionally, the researchers found that Pennsylvania was one of the states with the most lost revenue, with approximately $638.2 million lost to income and sales tax. The study looked at data between 2000 and 2016.

Joel Segel, assistant professor of Health Policy and Administration, said that the results — recently published in the journal Medical Care — could help governments that are hoping to make up for lost revenue.

“This is a cost that was maybe not thought about as explicitly before, and a cost that governments could potentially try to recoup,” Segel said. “Instead of focusing on the cost of treating people with opioid use disorder, you could think about it in terms of a potential benefit to getting people healthy, back on their feet, and back in the workforce.”

Previous research estimated that in 2016 there were nearly 2.1 million Americans with an opioid use disorder, and approximately 64,000 deaths were the result of an opioid overdose. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 2,235 opioid-related overdose deaths­­­ in Pennsylvania alone.

Segel said that while previous studies have looked at the cost of the opioid epidemic in terms of substance abuse treatment and other medical costs, he and the other researchers were interested in exploring other costs that may not have been captured before.

“We wanted to take a systematic approach to how we could think about some of the tax revenue that is lost if someone is unable to work due to opioid use,” Segel said. “This could be an important consideration for either state or federal budgets.”

The researchers used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, as well as information from a previous study that estimated declines in the labor force due to the opioid epidemic. They used the TAXSIM calculator from the National Bureau of Economic Research to estimate losses in tax revenue.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that from 2000 to 2016, there was an estimated decline of 1.6 million participants in the labor force, with about 68,000 of those in Pennsylvania. There were about 180,000 overdose deaths, with approximately 6,100 occurring in Pennsylvania.

Additionally, the researchers estimated losses of $11.8 billion to state governments and $26 billion to the federal government in tax revenue due to reductions in the labor force. For state governments, this included lost sales tax and income tax revenue. Losses to the federal government were entirely due to lost income tax revenue.

Segel said the results help show the value of treating people with opioid use disorder and should be considered when treatment programs are being considered and evaluated.

“The state of Pennsylvania has been developing some innovative programs, and our results are something to consider as these programs are being considered for implementation,” Segel said. “Not only are treatment programs beneficial to the individual and to society, but if you’re thinking about the total cost of these treatment programs, future earnings from tax revenue could help offset a piece of that.”


Penn State has made a multi-year investment in bringing together researchers from many fields to address the challenges of substance abuse in Pennsylvania and beyond.

Dennis P. Scanlon, distinguished professor of health policy and administration and director of the Center for Health Care Policy Research; Yunfeng Shi, assistant professor of health policy and administration; and John R. Moran, associate professor of health policy and administration, all with Penn State, also participated in this work.

This work was supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under the project “Estimation of Societal Costs to States Due to the Opioid Epidemic,” and part of larger work supported under a Strategic Planning Implementation award from the Penn State Office of the Provost, “Integrated Data Systems Solutions for Health Equity.”

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New Statistics Show Doctors Positively Impacting Opioid Epidemic

New Statistics Show Doctors Positively Impacting Opioid Epidemic

MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s physicians are having a positive impact on the opioid epidemic here at home while national statistics are showing for the first time, Americans’ odds of dying from an accidental opioid overdose are higher – 1 in 96 – than from a motor vehicle crash – 1 in 103.

Using data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention comparing overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018, states and the District of Columbia are ranked by the largest positive change between the two years. The area with the largest decrease in opioid deaths ranked No. 1, while the state with the highest increase in opioid deaths ranked No. 50.

Alabama ranked 14 in the new CDC study with a decrease of 5.3 percent.

  • Predicted 12-month count, June 2017: 836
  • Predicted 12-month count, June 2018: 792

Because fatal drug overdoses are often underestimated, the CDC also factored for predicted cases. Metrics include percent completeness in overall death reporting, the percentage of deaths with the cause of death pending further investigation and the percentage of drug overdose deaths with specific or drug classes reported, according to the CDC.

National rankings of fatal opioid overdose rates in each state and the District of Columbia for 2017 are also based on data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. The data include deaths from both legally prescribed and illegally produced fentanyl.

The age-adjusted opioid overdose death rate for the U.S. was 14.9 per 100,000 individuals. In Alabama, the age-adjusted opioid overdose death rate was 9 per 100,000 individuals. Alabama ranked 36 out of 51 states, including the District of Columbia for 2017, the third lowest in the Southeast and far below the national average.

“This is extremely good news for Alabama and shows that the hard work of our physicians and the programs that the Medical Association and our leadership have instituted are truly making a difference in our state by saving lives,” said Association Executive Director Mark Jackson. “Until 2013 Alabama was one of the only states offering an opioid prescribing education course when the FDA developed the blueprint for Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies for producers of controlled substances. As the need for that prescribing track has grown, we’ve made adjustments to ensure the prescribers attending it will receive the latest information available. Now, we’ve added an online, OnDemand track that makes it even easier for prescribers to get the latest education available. With any luck, Alabama’s death numbers due to prescription drugs will continue to drop. Our efforts are definitely paying off in a big, big way.”

Visit the OnDemand Education Center at

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It’s Not Just About Opioids…

It’s Not Just About Opioids…

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 30 percent of overdoses in the United States involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines, or “benzos.” Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 115 Americans die each day from an opioid-related overdose.

However, between 1996 and 2013 the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67 percent from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. In 2015, 23 percent of people who died of an opioid-related overdose also tested positive for benzodiazepines.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal in March 2017 of more than 300,000 continuously insured patients receiving opioid prescriptions between 2001 and 2013, the percentage of persons also prescribed benzodiazepines rose to 17 percent in 2013 from nine percent in 2001. The study showed those concurrently using both drugs are at higher risk of visiting the emergency department or being admitted to a hospital for a drug-related emergency.

In March 2016, the CDC issued new guidelines for the prescribing of opioids, which included a recommendation to avoid prescribing benzodiazepines concurrently with opioids when possible. In October 2016, the Food and Drug Administration issued a “black box” warning for prescription opioids and benzodiazepines highlighting the dangers of administering these medications together. (See

Let’s talk about benzos.

As with all medications, benzodiazepines have their usefulness. If prescribed and taken correctly, this class of medications can be extraordinarily helpful to patients. Benzodiazepines calm or sedate a person by raising the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin).

Alprazolam is the most prescribed benzodiazepine in Alabama, according to the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners.

“Benzodiazepines are very effective medications for the treatment of acute anxiety just as opioids are very useful for the treatment of acute pain. But also like opioids, benzodiazepines will cause the development of physiologic tolerance if used regularly, and this often causes a loss of therapeutic effect if the dose is not continuously escalated. For this reason, they are not ideal medications as the primary treatment of chronic anxiety,” said Luke Engeriser, M.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at USA Health College of Medicine and Deputy Chief Medical Officer, AltaPointe Health Systems in Mobile. “Benzodiazepines are most useful when prescribed for brief periods when someone is going through a major crisis or exacerbation of symptoms, for example after the loss of a loved one. Ideally, regular use of the medication would only be for one or two weeks. We
also sometimes will use a benzodiazepine for a time-limited period when we are initiating an antidepressant medication like an SSRI or SNRI for treatment of chronic anxiety. Although these antidepressant medications are very effective for anxiety, it sometimes takes a few weeks before the medication has a sufficient therapeutic effect.”

Other physicians, like David Herrick, M.D., of Montgomery, agree with Dr. Engeriser that as physicians prescribe benzodiazepines, extra care should be taken in monitoring the patient.

“All medications have their place, but it’s the way they are used or misused that’s creating a deadly problem. While using opioids and benzos together is not completely forbidden, it is something that has to be done very, very carefully. Most people don’t have to be on benzodiazepines all the time. If the patient has a real anxiety disorder, then that patient should be under the care of a psychiatrist,” Dr. Herrick said. “Benzos are intended to be used for the short term. I think the medical community should consider benzodiazepines just as risky as opioids and monitor and treat their patients who are using them just as carefully as their patients who are taking opioids…with the same amount of care and concern.”

Going back to school.

According to Dr. Merrill Norton, PharmD., ICCDP-D, Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy, although benzodiazepines have been in use since the 1950s, education about their proper use and potential harm has not kept up with the times.

“The problem with opioids and benzodiazepines, even at prescribed levels, is understanding which opioid interacts with which benzo?” Dr. Norton explained. “This is where the physician has to be very astute. What needs to happen now is a consistent training mechanism for physicians who prescribe buprenorphine, methadone, or have patients on these medications. What the benzo is doing is helping modify the anxiety that is being triggered by the opioid withdrawal. That’s why they use it. And this is why the physician needs to be better trained not only in the prescribing of the opioid but also with benzos and how they react to one another.”

Dr. Norton suggested before prescribing a benzodiazepine, physicians should evaluate the patient for tendencies to misuse drugs and/or alcohol or if the patient has a history of misuse. Depending on the complexity of the patient’s care needs, consultation or referral to an addiction medicine physician may be necessary. Certain aberrant behaviors also may be a feature in some patients who are prescribed benzodiazepines and may include diversion of valid prescriptions, illicit sale or use in manners alternate to the prescribed dosage, route and frequency.

“Physicians need to know that benzodiazepines are useful short term but have extreme dangers to medication safety to patients who are placed on long-term regimes. Physicians also need to be aware of each benzodiazepine medication’s half-life, tolerance curves, basic pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetic properties of each, and how to identify and manage benzodiazepine withdrawal when it occurs. Basically, physicians need to re-educate themselves on these medications. I’m finding that most physicians are already very cautious when it comes to prescribing benzodiazepines, but I don’t know how aware they are of the many types of drug interactions that can happen,” Dr. Norton said.

The Medical Association will again offer three live Prescribing and Pharmacology of Controlled Drugs courses in 2019. Drs. Engeriser, Herrick and Norton have all participated in these lectures in the past as guest faculty members and stress the importance of presenting evidence-based information and case studies to the attendees. The courses in 2019 will be March 2-3 in Auburn, Aug. 2-4 in Destin, and Nov. 23-24 in Birmingham. More information about specific topics and faculty will be available from the Association’s Education Department at a later date.

The Medical Association recently unveiled its new online OnDemand Education Center, which includes seven Alabama Opioid Prescribing courses that meet the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners’ requirements for holders of an ASCS and are free to members. One course specifically deals with benzodiazepines: Use and Misuse of Benzodiazepines.

What tools can physicians use to avoid potentially deadly medication interactions?

There are many tools physicians can use to help screen their patients for a history of alcohol and/or drug addiction before prescribing benzodiazepines. Physicians agree that adding a benzodiazepine into the mix of medications for a patient who has a history of addiction may only be adding fuel to the fire.

“Prescribing a benzodiazepine to a patient with a history of addiction to other substances increases the risk that a patient could develop an addiction to benzodiazepines or that the benzodiazepine could trigger a relapse on the drug of choice. When prescribing any controlled substance, we should also regularly check the PDMP,” explained Dr. Engeriser.

The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program was developed to promote the public health and welfare by detecting diversion, abuse and misuse of prescription medications classified as controlled substances under the Alabama Uniform Controlled Substances Act. Under the Code of Alabama, 1975, § 20-2-210, et seq., the Alabama Department of Public Health was authorized to establish, create and maintain a controlled substances prescription database program. This law requires anyone who dispenses Class II, III, IV, V controlled substances to report daily the dispensing of these drugs to the database. For more information about the Alabama PDMP, or to set up an account, log on here:

Another helpful tool Dr. Norton suggested physicians can have at their fingertips to help spot bad drug interactions is the app, UpToDate. This app is one of the fastest apps physicians can use to double-check for drug interactions as they are writing prescriptions. It is, however, a subscription service, but the app comes with clinical decision support with evidence-based clinical information, including drug topics and recommendations. To learn more about UpToDate, services, subscription options, and how to download the app for your mobile device or EHR, log on here:

Medical Association members can also subscribe to The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics at a reduced rate. The Medical Letter is a biweekly publication that provides evidence-based, peer-reviewed evaluations of new FDA-approved drugs with conclusions reached by a consensus of experts; new information on previously approved drugs including pivotal clinical trials, new indications, and safety warnings; consensus recommendations for
the preferred and alternative treatments for common disorders; and comparative reviews of drugs for a given indication with particular attention to clinical efficacy, adverse effects, drug interactions, and cost. A subscription includes online and print access, a mobile app, and CME opportunities. To learn more about The Medical Letter, log on here:

What’s next?

A new study by the University of Michigan and published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine maps out county-by-county the prescribing habits of benzodiazepines. The South ranks at the top of the spectrum.

The study is based on data about all prescriptions written in 2015 by primary care providers for patients in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. The researchers combined that information with county-level health and socioeconomic data from the County Health Rankings project, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.

In the single year studied, the 122,054 primary care providers included in the study prescribed 728 million days’ worth of benzodiazepines to their patients, at a cost of $200 million.

The states with the highest intensity of prescribing — which the researchers defined as prescription days of benzodiazepines relative to all prescribed medication days — were Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Florida and Louisiana. States with the lowest intensity were Minnesota, Alaska, New
York, Hawaii and South Dakota. Across all types of providers, primary care and otherwise, benzodiazepines accounted for 2.3 percent of all medication days prescribed to Part D participants by those providers that year.

Physicians agree it’s time to take another look at these medications.

“Benzos have as many problems as opioids do — they are addictive, sedating and deadly if they are not prescribed and used properly.” Dr. Herrick said. “We as physicians need to be more aware of these dangers and treat benzos the way we treat opioids with a lot more respect than we are right now. If you write the prescription and sign your name to it, you had better understand what you’re writing before you hand it off to your patient because it could cost that patient his life. We have gotten a bit cavalier about how we prescribe benzos, and we need to take a look at how and why we prescribe them. This is a real issue, and we need to take it more seriously. It’s time we take a hard look at how these are prescribed and why.”

Dr. Engeriser, however, offered a word of caution. Where physicians who prescribe opioids may have instinctively wanted to stop prescribing them altogether as the national epidemic was on the rise that cannot be the case with benzodiazepines.

“As providers become more careful about prescribing practices, there will likely be an increase in the desire to stop using benzodiazepines for certain patients. Benzodiazepine withdrawal is similar to alcohol withdrawal and can lead to seizures, delirium tremens, and death. For that reason, it is critical that patients not have their benzodiazepines abruptly stopped. There are different strategies for the tapering of benzodiazepines. The important thing in the outpatient setting is to taper the benzodiazepine slowly enough that severe withdrawal symptoms do not emerge. This is often done more easily with a benzodiazepine with a longer half-life such as clonazepam than a shorter half-life like alprazolam. On an inpatient unit, benzodiazepine taper can be more rapid, using as needed benzodiazepines to treat emergent withdrawal, with dosing guided by a scale, such as the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol-Revised (CIWA-Ar).” Dr. Engeriser said.

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